Posted in: Developing Perspectives

For Learning, Old School Can be the Best School

November 15  Bryan Bergeron

When I started out in electronics, my “junk box” of rescued parts from TVs, radios, and the like was the source of endless projects and test instruments. Armed with a few key texts — especially the ARRL Handbook and Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest Mims — just about anything was possible.

Sure, my projects didn’t win any beauty contests with labels made with a permanent marker and reused chassis with dozens of extra holes, but most worked — eventually. It’s the “eventually” part that’s key.

I can recall dozens of blown circuit breakers, exploding electrolytic capacitors, and shorted vacuum tubes. However, I also recall the satisfaction of seeing copper, carbon, and steel come to life.

With time and savings, I later could buy just about anything that I wanted — from commercial test gear to top-of-the-line ham radio equipment. It made for a great looking test bench and ham shack, but I lost out on the learning end of things. It didn’t matter that I could read the schematic of the hermetically sealed phase locked loop synthesizer in my communications transceiver — I could never really know it. I could replace it if defective, but not really fix it the way I could one of my old creations.

From a practical perspective, having a nice portable o-scope with high bandwidth and Flash memory storage makes debugging a pleasure. Then, there’s the safety issue — none of my creations were UL listed or approved.

So, there’s nothing wrong with new gear that’s compact, safe, and easy to use. It’s just that — from an experimenter’s perspective — shiny commercial equipment can become a black box. I make a habit of disassembling everything I buy; in part to understand what’s in the black box, but it’s still an imperfect exercise.

If your goal is to maximize the learning experience — whether for yourself or someone you hope to pass on your knowledge of electronics to — then I’d consider the old school “junk box” approach to learning. Fill your box with parts from tear-downs of whatever you can get your hands on. It’s amazing what you can harvest from an old PC, for example. Even a discarded compact florescent bulb can yield a half dozen reusable components.

I’m fortunate to live a few miles from MIT, where there’s a regular flea market of used test gear and lab equipment that’s sold by the pound. Find out where your local ham or flea market is held and drop by at least once a year. Even if you don’t use parts harvested from the gear to build your own, the exercise of a tear-down is educational in itself.

You can’t wildly rip things apart, however. Take a methodical approach, trace the connections to see what components are associated with each other and — if you can — create a schematic diagram of the circuit in the device.

Lately, I’ve been partial to vacuum tube projects. With a few tubes and high voltage power supplies on hand, it doesn’t take much effort to build oscillators, tuners, sound effects devices, and so on. So, go ahead. Give the “old school” junk box method of setting up your workbench and your communications, robotics, or other projects a try. Your projects may not look as attractive as the commercial systems, but you’ll really understand the inner workings of what you build.

You’ll then be well on your way to being a real experimenter.  NV

Posted on 11/15 at 8:57 pm

Posted in: Developing Perspectives

Wanted: Magnetic Free Zone

October 15  Bryan Bergeron

Magnetics, for the most part, make life easier. Consider what we’d do without the solenoids that actuate electric garage door motors, the rare-earth magnets embedded in iPad covers, magnetized tools, and the ubiquitous kitchen refrigerator magnets. However, the magnetic fields associated with magnets can be problematic.

For example, one of my interests is rebuilding vintage mechanical pocket watches. If you own a mechanical watch, you know that a magnetized watch will run abnormally fast. Well, I have a pocket watch on my desk that constantly gains time. I was at a loss to understand how the watch could become magnetized simply sitting on my desk. Well, using an inexpensive pocket compass, I was able to verify that the watch was being magnetized by a pair of scissors in a drawer directly under the watch. Opening and closing the drawer several times a day was enough to magnetize the watch — just as running a permanent magnet over a screwdriver can transform it into a magnet.

The discovery with my pocket watch led me to search for a magnetic free zone in my house. It was, in short, difficult. In my office, I have a dozen super magnets to hold papers on my white board. Then, there’s the unshielded speakers on the wall. In my kitchen, I was surprised to learn that some of the flatware was magnetized. On my dresser, I found my steel collar stays and magnet sets. It seemed my compass never really settled on magnetic North, given the various motors and electronic gadgets around my place.

In retaliation, I purchased a few degaussing machines from eBay, where they can be had for about $10 and up. First up was the fixed magnet combined magnetizer/demagnetizer. These devices work great as magnetizers for long thin objects such as screwdrivers, but are useless in reversing the process.

Next, I tried the generic Chinese-built “blue box” demagnetizer — essentially an AC solenoid without the moving parts and a momentary on switch. You place the screwdriver or other object you want to demagnetize on top of the box and press the button, which energizes the core with 110 VAC. Then, you slowly move the object away from the unit as far as you can before releasing the switch. The iron molecules within the tool or other object should be randomly aligned, and therefore non-magnetic. This solution was affordable, reliable, and consistent.

Given that I was looking for a solution on eBay, I also had a serendipitous find — an old US made “instantaneous demagnetizer” tool by Magna Flux ($20). This tool uses a capacitor discharge to quickly ramp down the magnetic field after it’s been built up. Like the blue boxes, it did the job. Moreover, there is no need to move the object to be demagnetized while the AC field is energized. Just press and release the button. The capacitor circuit takes care of decreasing the magnetic field.

Of course, if you decide to demagnetize your tools and mechanical watches, set up a safe area away from anything remotely resembling a magnetic data store. Don’t think of using a demagnetizer around your credit cards or your DAT collection.

With the magnetics out of the way, I’m left to puzzle over why a mechanical watch would run faster when magnetized. Is it somehow more efficient because of decreased friction? Are Eddy currents somehow imparting energy to the mainspring? Could magnetized motors somehow run more efficiently? If you have the answer, please drop me a line. NV

Posted on 10/15 at 9:08 am

Posted in: Nuts and Volts


September 15 

Back in 2008, Nuts & Volts sponsored the $100 Workbench Challenge. It was a great success and we had plenty of readers enjoy participating in the contest and showing off their carefully crafted work spaces. With the changes in available tools and technology, we decided to bring the challenge back, but this time even bigger and with a lot more prizes! Our new two-part contest is a combination of straight-up workbench design and a bit of "show and tell." So, let’s get down to details. What exactly is the Workbench Challenge 2015? Check out the details... 

Posted on 09/15 at 3:44 pm

Posted in: Developing Perspectives

Home Automation: Are We There Yet?

September 15  Bryan Bergeron

With Amazon’s general release of the Echo home automation controller, it may be time to take a second look at the home automation market. I first took the plunge into commercial home automation several years ago with X10-compatible hardware ( 

For the price of a bare-bones Echo ($180,, you can get a half dozen wireless timers and remotes for controlling lights, appliances, and your home security system. X10-compatible home automation devices are commodities — inexpensive, ubiquitous, and they work. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit boring.

At the other end of the home automation market are the cloudcompatible smart thermostats and cameras, typified by the Nest learning thermostat and Nest cam, respectively ( Both can be controlled through your smartphone from anywhere in the world. Plus, the learning thermostat is compatible with a variety of devices — from smart locks and sprinkler systems to ceiling fans.

If you want to make the Nest cam fully functional, you’ll have to pay a $10 monthly fee to Nest Aware — not something I’m prepared to do. 

One of the advantages of the Amazon Echo is that it’s compatible with Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue devices. WeMo is compatible with standard Wi-Fi routers and iOS devices, such as the iPad. Hue — which is primarily for lighting — also works with a standard Wi-Fi router, and both iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.

I’ve used the Philips Hue lighting system with my iPhone for about a year. It’s expensive, however, at about $200 for a Wi-Fi/Hue bridge and three 60W equivalent LED bulbs. Which brings me to cost. The basic “star trek” package — which allows you to say the equivalent of “Computer, lights on” from anywhere in your living room — is about $400 — $180 for the Echo and $200 for a basic Philips Hue lighting system. 

Add a few Belkin WeMo Wi-Fi switches for your existing lights or appliances, and you’re easily approaching $500. Still, this sort of off-the-shelf functionality that actually works was science fiction just a few years ago.

As Google, Apple, and now Amazon compete for the front end of the home automation market, there are likely to be more and more affordable peripherals and tools. More importantly — from an electronics enthusiast’s perspective — is the availability of inexpensive peripherals that can be easily torn down and repurposed for other uses. Think of replacing an RGB LED with three opto-isolators to control three servos, for example.

I think we just might have the “star trek” computer system of the 1960s. Now, someone needs to start working on the transporter, so we can say “Beam me up, Echo.” NV

Posted on 09/15 at 10:37 am

Posted in: Nuts and Volts

It’s not a Segway, it’s Sideways…

September 15 

Like a Segway, Sideway uses a lean angle to control speed. It uses a wireless Wii Nunchuk controller to manuover the two wheeled skateboard. The Sideway uses the Parallax Propeller with custom software for the IMU and control. There are two 280W, 24V electric scooter motors, one on each wheel, both driven by a Sabertooth 2x32A motor controller.  It'll run for about 40 minutes +/- on a single charge.

Hack-A-Day: Sideway

A quick video showing the Sideway V2. Sideway is a self-balancing electric skateboard, designed and built by Jason Dorie

Posted on 09/15 at 9:18 am

Posted in: Nuts and Volts

Nuts & Volts Newsletters

September 15 

For those who may not have known, we send out a Newsletter every week! If you would like to see one of our previous Newsletters, just click on one below or all of them. If you would like to sign up, just click on the read more link at the bottom.  


Newsletter #1 Newsletter #8
Newsletter #2 Newsletter #9
Newsletter #3 Newsletter #10
Newsletter #4 Newsletter #11
Newsletter #5 Newsletter #12
Newsletter #6 Newsletter #13
Newsletter #7 Newsletter #14


Posted on 09/15 at 1:04 pm

Posted in: Nuts and Volts

Mouser Adds Adafruit to Its Open Source Lineup

July 15 

Mouser Electronics, Inc. announced that it has signed a global distribution agreement with Adafruit. Adafruit was founded in 2005 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineer Limor "Ladyada" Fried. Adafruit offers unique and fun DIY electronics, kits, andopen-source hardware that turn everyday objects into high-tech prototypes suitable for education and advanced production concepts.



Mouser Electronics will offer same-day shipping on the Adafruit product line, including the FLORA and GEMMAwearable electronic platforms. These small but powerful boards incorporate programming based on the Arduinointegrated development environment (IDE) through USB interface to give designers and entry-level makers alike the ability to easily create prototypes of wearable devices. The FLORA board includes 14 sewing tap pads for attachment and electrical connections on a 1.75 in. diameter body, and the even smaller GEMMA board puts its six sewing tap pads on a 1.1 in. diameter body.

Mouser will also stock the Adafruit HUZZAH ESP8266 breakout board, a tiny WiFi microcontroller based on the ESP8266 80MHz microcontroller. This breadboard-friendly module makes adding WiFi to projects easy with onboard WiFi antenna, I/O pins, and level shifting.

"Mouser is excited about this new partnership with Adafruit," said Russell Rasor, Mouser Vice President, Supplier Management. "With the growing popularity of the Maker and DIY movement, Adafruit will be a welcome addition to our lineup for open-source products. Customers across the globe now have access to an expanded offering of innovative products designed by experts with a passion for electronics education and inspiring the next generation of engineers."

"Mouser's global reach enables us to extend our customer base to offer powerful and easy-to-use products to people of all skill levels," said Limor "Ladyada" Fried, founder and engineer. "Known for their best-in-class distribution, renowned service and exceptional customer reach, Mouser is a valued strategic partner for us. We look forward to much success."

To learn more, visit

Posted on 07/15 at 8:00 am

Posted in: Developing Perspectives

Vintage Repair

July 15  Bryan Bergeron

I’m in the middle of overhauling a vintage Singer 201-2 sewing machine, manufactured in the US in 1940. As I expected, the motor brushes need replacing, the oldfashioned leaf switch controlling the light is — at best — intermittent and needs a good cleaning, and the cottoninsulated wire is begging to be updated to fireproof silicon insulated wire. Old appliances — void of microcontrollers or even simple semiconductors — are a pleasure to tear down and rebuild. They’re fun as a solo weekend project, or, if you have someone you want to teach basic mechanics and electricity to, they make a good two or three weekend project. Even bringing an old toaster back to life can provide a sense of satisfaction.

Back to the Singer, there’s always more involved in a vintage repair than meets the eye. These old sewing machines require regular lubricating and cleaning like any other fine metal equipment. I’ve tried just about every grease on the market, and have come to rely on Tri-Flo clear grease. It’s a synthetic grease that’s fairly odorless, relatively inexpensive, and easy to come by. Just make certain you remove all of the old organic grease before you apply the Tri-Flo. The combination of old and new grease doesn’t perform well.

One of the unfortunate characteristics of lighted appliances from the middle of the last century is that they relied on inefficient 110V incandescent bulbs. The Singer uses a miniature 15W bulb that gets extremely hot — hot enough to blister the paint on the bulb holder. I’ve solved that problem by replacing the incandescent with a more efficient, much cooler LED version. An unanticipated advantage of moving to LED lighting is that the light is nearly pure white as opposed to yellow. You can find LED bulbs at Amazon,, and, of course,

Replacing frayed power cords can be a challenge — especially when the appliance is designed for a non-polarized two-pronged connection to the mains. Arbitrarily connecting a three-pronged plug can be a hazard — especially on an appliance with a metal chassis. Unless you’re familiar with electrical code — as well as how your house is wired — I’d stick with the original wiring diagram. Do replace the brittle plastic cord with modern flexible cord. I’ve had good luck with non-polarized cords from both Amazon and Walmart.

Switches — especially power switches — are the most problematic components in a vintage repair. It’s usually easy enough to replace a toggle switch with a garden variety version, but it’s at the cost of destroying the “vintage” feel of the appliance. Take the Singer sewing machine switch. The toggle is a distinctive white Bakelite, and the mechanical aspect of the switch is almost two inches long. I was lucky enough to find a new old stock (NOS) replacement on eBay. Otherwise, I would have been forced to substitute a miniature toggle switch for the classic Bakelite toggle. I’ve found a great source of old fashioned switches is guitar supply houses and local music stores — especially stores that cater to the tube amp crowd.

So, next time you walk past a yard sale, check out the vintage electrical items. There’s always something to learn from a teardown, even if you have no need for the actual item. NV

Posted on 07/15 at 9:35 am

Posted in: Nuts and Volts

The BBC micro:bit

July 15 

Groundbreaking collaboration between 29 partners including ARM, Barclays, BBC, element14, Freescale, Lancaster University, Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, Samsung, ScienceScope, Technology Will Save Us and the Wellcome Trust to give a pocket-sized computer to every year 7 child in the UK for free; ambition to inspire digital creativity and develop a new generation of tech pioneers


The The BBC and partners today unveiled the BBC micro:bit – a pocket-sized, codeable computer that allows children to get creative with technology. In the BBC’s most ambitious education initiative for 30 years, up to 1 million devices will be given to every 11 or 12 year old child in year 7 or equivalent across the UK, for free.

 BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized computer that you can code, customise and control to bring your digital ideas, games and apps to life. Measuring 4cm by 5cm, and designed to be fun and easy to use, users can create anything from games and animations to scrolling stories at school, at home and on the go - all you need is imagination and creativity. The BBC micro:bit is completely programmable. That means each of its LEDS can be individually programmed as can its buttons, inputs and outputs, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth Smart Technology.


to read more about the BBC micro:bit, visit the BBC Website

Posted on 07/15 at 8:35 am

Posted in: Nuts and Volts

TS-7970 i.MX6 Powered Single Board Computer Now Sampling

June 15 

Fountain Hills, AZ June 19, 2015 – Technologic Systems Inc., an embedded systems solutions company, has announced they will be releasing limited samples of their new high end, Single Board Computer (SBC), TS-7970 for engineering and early prototypes. The TS-7970 can fulfill a wide variety of embedded system requirements with high performance components, like a 1.2 GHz Single or Quad Core Cortex A9 ARM CPU, 512 MB to 2 GB DDR3 RAM, 4 GB eMMC Flash Storage, microSD card slot, Gigabit Ethernet, and available Wireless 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth radio. Full descriptions, pictures, and resources, including manuals and schematics, for the TS-7970 can be found on the Technologic Systems' TS-7970 product page.

TS-7970 Bottom View


The TS-7970 is a high performance single board computer based on the Freescale i.MX6 CPU which implements the ARM® Cortex™-A9 architecture clocked at 1 GHz (Single or Quad Core) and paired with with 1GB or 2GB of DDR3 RAM. Several industry standard interfaces and connections such as dual Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth, USB, SATA II, and more make the TS-7970 a great fit for nearly any embedded systems application. A wide variety of software platforms are available including Linux and QNX (with Android and Windows support coming soon) for flexibility in matching your embedded system requirements.

  • High Performance Embedded with Solo or Quad Freescale i.MX6 ARM CPU
  • Wireless Connectivity for Remote Access and IoT-like Applications
  • Protect Valuable Data with Robust and Reliable Storage Solution
  • High Speed Industry Standard Connectors like Gigabit Ethernet and SATA II
  • Engineered for Rugged, Industrial Environments



Posted on 06/15 at 10:59 am

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